Ireland steps

Tim Robinson’s Maps of Arans

By Eamonn Wall

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In William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErthhis deepmap of Chase County, Kansas—I encountered Barry Lopez’s quotation that supports his belief that maps and mapmaking are more complex than we are led to believe. It is fromDesert Notes:

Your confidence in these finely etched maps is understandable, for at first glance they seem excellent, the best a man is capable of; but your confidence is misplaced. Throw them out. They are the wrong sort of map. They are too thin. They are not the sort of map that can be followed by a man who knows what he is doing—the coyote, even the crow, would regard them with suspicion.

 Both Least Heat-Moon and Lopez are advocates for a new type of cartography, one that includes not just the intersecting lines and discrete shadings we are so familiar with from school and road volumes, but one that includes, or at least makes gestures toward, all of lived/living experience—from the most ancient past to the present.
Probing deeper, we learn that maps originated in ancient China and were designed for military use. In Ireland, where I grew up, the 19th century Ordnance Survey was not just an army map but also a kind of imperial stocktaking enabling the conquerors to estimate what they had acquired. The Gaelic Irish, who maintained a kind of loose control of Ireland until the Elizabethan conquest, did not make maps; instead, they relied on “tracing” to connect people to one another and to the locations that defined them.

A key term for the Irish, and one that is much used nowadays by people interested in environmental issues, is dinnseanchas. Translated into English, the terms means “lore of place,” and it encompasses the whole history of a place. The individual is formed by interaction with his/her place, is part of a large story, and is not privileged by virtue of being human. Central to dinnseanchas is story and how story engages the whole story/history of a place. Place is a wonder in its own right to behold, and it is also a teacher. It does not need us. Dinnseanchas is rooted in both Pagan and Christian beliefs which remain intertwined in the Irish psyche.

Over the past decade, while writing a book on contemporary writers from the West of Ireland (Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions), and in my own way, tracing their connections to their American counterparts, I spent a great deal of time learning about how contemporary writers, working from various environmental and independent perspectives, have begun the process of remaking/remarking maps, of transforming military maps into deepmaps. Always a walker, my reading for the book allowed me to bring together my own head-clearing, all-weather exercise on the streets of St. Louis County with library research, particularly when I came to study the work of Tim Robinson.

Robinson, born and raised in Yorkshire, arrived in Ireland in 1972 and has lived there since: first on Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, and now in Roundstone, Connemara, County Galway. Trained as an artist and mathematician, he was persuaded by a local postmistress to draw a map of Inishmore that would help tourists navigate its byways. Of course, like Least Heat-Moon and Lopez, Robinson soon understood that traditional maps, though useful, concealed and erased more of the environment than they revealed. Robinson set out to deepmap Inishmore, an island the size of Manhattan, and did so in two volumes: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995). In the former volume, he explores the coast, in the latter, the interior.

Of course, to provide a deepmap of a place the cartographer must know everything about it. For the task, Robinson was initially ill-prepared. He had to learn Irish and master the various subjects needed to understand the island: its literary, scientific, and historical contexts, etc. Given that he was eventually given a place in Aosdána, the Irish academy of writers and artists, and that his work has been so widely praised, it is clear that Robison succeeded in his objectives. An enormous undertaking, Stones of Aran is considered a most important artistic achievement. Arguably, it is Ireland’s greatest non-fiction prose work of recent times.

How did he do it? One element that is really important to Robinson’s purpose is walking. As Rebecca Solnit reminds us in Wanderlust, her history of walking:

The history of walking is an amateur history, just as walking is an amateur art. To use a walking metaphor, it trespasses through everybody else’s field—through anatomy, anthropology, architecture, gardening, geography, political and cultural history, literature, sexuality, religious studies—and doesn’t step in any of them on its long route.

She goes on to point out that “one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete—for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.” In writing his books, Robinson was indeed trespassing on others’ fields—from the anthropologists’ to the zoologists’—and walking made this possible. The walker moves slowly, honestly, and without presumption and he/she will not seek to overwhelm what lies ahead; instead, the walker must take into account and respect all that is encountered along the way. This is exactly what Robinson did, and he aligned his walking with his writing:

I had a formula to guide me and whip me on through the thickets of difficulties I encountered: while walking the land, I am the pen on the paper; while drawing this map, my pen is myself walking the land. The purpose of this identification was to short circuit the polarities of objectivity and subjectivity, and help me keep faith with reality.

The foot on the ground is likened to the pen on paper, the prose is connected to the foot, the foot is a measure used in literary composition, and the step is integral to walking and dance. A keen observer, a writer of enormous talent, Robinson navigated slowly and he moved with the land as he deepmaped it and not against it. Also, walking literally grounded Robinson and made him less likely to be drawn to the extremes of subjectivity/objectivity.

I start at the eastern end of the island. The road from Cill Rónáin through Cill Éinne continues past the last village, Iaráirne, and then makes a sharp turn north to a little bay; there is a stile in the wall at that turn from which a faint field-path continues the line of the road eastward, across smooth turf in which hosts of rabbits are digging sandpits, to the exact spot I have in mind. Here one can sit among the wild pansies and Lady’s bedstraw with the low rocky shore at one’s feet, and get one’s bearings. Behind and to the left is level ground of sandy fields, and dunes in the distance. To the right the land rises in stony slopes to the ruins of an ancient watchtower on the skyline. A mile and half ahead across the sound is Inish Meáin; the third island, Inis Oírr, is hidden behind it, but the hills of the Burren in County Clare appear beyond, a dozen miles away. Since the three islands and that north-western corner of Clare were once continuous—before the millions of years of weathering, the glaciers of the Ice Ages and the inexhaustible waves cut the sea-ways between them—the land forms visible out there, a little abstracted as they are by distance, can be seen as images of Árainn itself in the context of its geological past, and it is valuable to read them thus before going out on a clamber among the details and complexities of the way ahead, so that an otherwise inchoate mass of impressions may find an ordering and a clarification

In addition to the foot and learning acquired from books, Robinson’s cartography, as is clear from this passage, is also guided by the eye (do reir sultomhuis, as it is known in Irish) which was an essential tool used in ancient Gaelic appraisals. Robinson’s methodology mixes the ancient and modern without even seeming old fashioned.

As he looks back on the Stones of Aran volumes, Robinson, in hindsight, realizes that this method of discovery through walking is not just as aspect of his cartography but it is also an indicator of how we all should live in the world:

The step, so mobile, so labile, so nimbly coupling place and person, mood and matter, occasion and purpose, begins to emerge as a metaphor of a certain way of living on this earth. It is a momentary proposition put by the individual to the non-individual, an instant of trust which may not be well-founded, a not-quite-infallible catching of oneself in the art of falling. Stateless, the step claims a foot-long nationality every second. Having endlessly variable grounds, it needs no faith. The idea of freedom is associated in dozens of turns of phrase with that of the step. To the footloose all boundaries, whether academic or national, are mere administrative impertinences. With this freebooter’s license there goes every likelihood of superficiality, restlessness, fickleness, and transgression—and so, by contraries, goes the possibility of recurrency, of frequentation, of a deep, and even-deeper, dwelling in and on a place, a sum of whims and fancies totaling a constancy as of stone.

Indeed, the step does provide a sense of freedom though one, as Robinson reminds us, that must be used in a responsible manner. As I was writing my own book, I allowed myself to be guided by this notion that I should use my freedom to ramble in a careful manner. Robinson himself is most respectful while walking paths that others have trod before him. In one moving scene, he follows an ancient pilgrimage path in the same careful manner as pilgrims had done, even though he himself is not a believer:

The circuit that blesses is clockwise, or, since the belief is thousands of years older than the clock, sunwise. It is the ways the fireworshipper’s swastika turns, and its Christianized descendent St. Bridget’s cross. Visitors to holy wells make their “rounds” so, seven times with prayers. This book makes just one round of Árainn, though seven could not do justice to the place, and with eyes raised to this world rather than lowered in prayer. On Easter Fridays in past centuries the Aran folk used to walk around the island keeping as close to the coast as possible, and although nothing has been recorded on the question it is inconceivable that they should have made the circuit other than in the right-handed sense. This writing will lead in their footsteps, not at their penitential trudge but at an inquiring, digressive, and wondering pace.

The terrain of Inishmore is varied, inconsistent, endlessly changing. Also, the weather is moody and this will alter constantly the walker’s conception of what he/she sees. The clouds are moving quickly overhead and the air is so full of moisture that in a blink of an eye the aspect is changed. This is the magic of the West of Ireland. Walking, and how it orders the body and mind, helps the author accommodate these shifting landscapes and focuses as Solnit reveals in her discussion of Rousseau:

A solitary walker is in the world, but apart from it, with the detachment of the traveler rather than the ties of the worker, the dweller, the member of the group. Walking seems to have become Rousseau’s chosen mode of being because within a walk he is able to live in thought and reverie, to be self-sufficient, and thus to survive the world he feels has betrayed him. It provides him with a literal position from which to speak. As a literary structure, the recounted walk encourages digression and association, in contrast to the stricter form of discourse or the chronological progression of a biographical or historical narrative

Living in the former harbor master’s house in Roundstone, Robinson continues his working life as a writer and cartographer. With his partner Mairead, he operates from his home Folding Landscapes, a small press that publishes his maps and some of his books.

Last year, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, the third volume of his Connemara trilogy, was published to great acclaim and Robinson was honored by the Moore Institute of NUI-Galway with a symposium celebrating his achievements as a writer, and marking his 70th birthday. Like Stones of Aran, the trilogy is an accounting of and homage to the lore of place, itsdinnseanchas; this time of Connemara, the region of County Galway to the North and West of Galway City. Connemara, as revealed by the map Robinson provides to accompany the text, has as its northern boundary the great fjord of Killary Harbour while Lochs Mask and Corrib serve as its eastern barriers. However, just as language is fluid in Connemara, moving and mixing English and Gaelic, so too are borders which are “fictive moments,” to borrow the phrase Robinson uses to describe a book’s preface.

The Connemara Trilogy is just as detailed as the two Stones of Aran volumes but, given the larger landscape, is longer. At the outset of Connemara: Listening to the Wind, the first part of the trilogy, Robinson, neatly and simply frames his objectives: “I concentrate on just three factors whose influences permeate the structures of everyday life here: the sound of the past, the language we breathe, and our frontage onto the natural world.” These words are so simple and profound that I just want to bottle them. Robinson is arguing, quietly, for the measures of attentiveness, sanctity, and modesty that should govern our interactions with our world.

Many would argue that James Joyce’s Ulysses is Ireland’s greatest prose work. It is my view that Stones of Aran and theConnemara Trilogy, because of their ambition and imaginative reach, are the equals of Joyce’s masterpiece. We might say that Joyce’s novels are the urban bookends of Irish prose while Robinson’s are its rural, and equal, equivalents.



Eamonn Wall, a native of Co. Wexford, Ireland, has lived in the United States since 1982. His most recent books are a book of literary criticism, Writing the Irish West: Ecologies and Traditions (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), and a collection of poetry,Sailing Lake Mareotis (Salmon Poetry, 2011). He is employed as Smurfit-Stone Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.